Sunday, February 20, 2011

Your daily dose of psychobabble

Hello everyone!
For my post today I want to talk about a simple aspect of social psychology that I find particularly relevant in my interactions. The concept is something called the "fundamental attribution error." The FAE suggests that when judging another person, an individual is more likely to attribute behavior to generalized traits, but when explaining their own behavior, they are more likely to attribute it to environmental factors. An example might serve to clarify this further:
So,  let's say I'm walking down the street, and I see a person hit a little kid in the head with their backpack as they pass. Were I to commit the FAE, I might assume that this individual was a mean person who didn't like kids. I would think: "Man, he/she is the kind of person who hits little kids in the head."
Now, same scenario, except this time I'm that person. I'm speeding along the sidewalk, heading to class and as I turn a corner, my huge backpack smacks some poor little munchkin in the side. As soon as I notice, I stop and check to make sure the kid is ok, apologizing profusely. Were I to commit the FAE, I might explain: "I'm so sorry! My bookbag is really big so I didn't see you behind it. I'm also a little late for class, so I was in a bit of a hurry. I didn't hurt you did I?"
In this example, I take one behavior committed by a stranger (hitting the kid in the head) and generalize it to his/her entire personality, without bothering to consider the conditions of the environment or other factors that contributed to the behavior (the sidewalk was crowded, he/she is much taller than the kid and just didn't see him, etc.). Conversely, in the situation where I hit the kid in the head, I explain away my behavior putting the blame completely on the situation, when I should have just been more careful where I swung my bag.
The FAE shows up in other ways as well. It implies that people are also more likely to attribute positive results to their own personalities/efforts (that cake was delicious = I'm such a good cook) and negative results to the other factors (that cake was disgusting = that must have been a bad recipe).
One of the things I find most fascinating about fundamental attributions errors is the way they illustrate how people never allow others the same level of complexity they allow themselves. When you think about how complicated and crazy each of our lives are, it only makes sense to realize that everyone else's life has just as many problems and conditions, just as many extenuating circumstances. It's certainly hard, perhaps impossible, to be always aware of the ways in which others have the same depth of thoughts, emotions, and reactions as you. But whether it's impossible or not, it's certainly possible to keep this in mind when dealing with others, and to give them the benefit of the doubt.
I'm sorry if this post didn't make much sense (Especially with all the ambiguous, general pronouns...). I hope at least the fundamental attribution error description was clear enough to understand. In case it wasn't, I'm posting a link that does a better job of it (here: A Note on Human Behavior). Love you guys!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Somehow my first post didn't work right--a lot of it was missing.

    I really liked this. I've been reading President Monson's Biography and one thing that stands out is that how often he avoids FAE errors--giving the more generous estimation to others' intents and looking to his own actions for ways he could have been better. Makes me wonder how much of living the gospel is learning to judge not unrighteously--or avoid FAE.

    And Ruth---that link is a BETTER explanation??

  3. No, the link was just for fun :)
    also, I forgot to mention: I kind of made up the FAE abbreviation, so if you go around talking about it that way, I'm not sure how many people will understand you.

  4. RUTH!!! HAHAH NIIIICCCCEEEEE!!! good job with the stinking RICKROLL!!! it did a very good job at explaining human behavior :P GAAAH X_X.... but yes i very much did enjoy the blog.

  5. I agree with the comment above XD although, i already knew about the rickroll, MWAHAHAHAHA

  6. Great explanation! There have been so many times that I wanted to explain myself to random strangers in the subway.